Blindness To Perceptions Of Average User Is Real Linux Handicap

I've beaten up on Linux in a couple of recent posts, arguing that there are <a href="">too many distros</a> and that it's a myth that Linux is <a href="">technically superior to Windows</a>. From the 300+ responses I received, a new thread emerges: Linux supporters seem more interested in preaching to the converted than in doing the hard work

Alexander Wolfe, Contributor

July 23, 2007

6 Min Read

I've beaten up on Linux in a couple of recent posts, arguing that there are too many distros and that it's a myth that Linux is technically superior to Windows. From the 300+ responses I received, a new thread emerges: Linux supporters seem more interested in preaching to the converted than in doing the hard work required to make the open-source operating system attractive to Windows users.That's always what I've believed. It's also why Dell's move to sell Ubuntu pre-installed on select systems is the biggest boost desktop Linux has gotten in a good long while. As many of my commenters were astute enough to point out, the vast majority of PC users don't install their own OSes. So, if they're going to use Linux, they need commercial options such as Dell's.

The thing the fanboys miss is, it's not about which OS is best. It's about what the average consumer feels comfortable with. Yes, even today most users don't understand that the typical Linux distro, fitted with a GNOME or KDE desktop, will seem very familiar to them. Why should this be, other than because there are some folks who expend their energy less on informing the general public of this fact and more writing about how the name of a certain OS is to be rendered. (Is it Linux? GNU? Ah, the correct name is "GNU/Linux systems." Thank you, Mr. Stallman. This time I know our side will win.)

Then there's the historical hostility of the Linux community to newbies bearing innocent questions. (I can't print the archetypical response, but its initials are RTFM.) To its credit, the Ubuntu community is relegating such behavior to the dustbin of open-source history.

Perhaps Ubuntu's attempt to appeal to new users, along with Dell's endorsement, will give desktop Linux its first real boost in a long time. (I should emphasize I'm not talking about servers, where Linux is strong and viable.)

More likely, Linux will remain mired in its single-digit desktop market share, unless and until the open-source community can speak with a single voice, rather than a chorus of 359 competing interests. I'm not holding my breath on that one.

But don't take my word for it. Let's debate it via a point-counterpoint, drawn from the best of those 300+ blog comments I received. The "points" are those which I think highlight my thesis, that the Linux folks can't see the forest for the trees. The "counterpoint" ones are the more astute variations on the "Linux is great" theme.

"Linux supporters don't get it" versus "Don't worry; pick one distro."


Linux isn't catching on because, as implied by this very article, Linux supporters do very little to overcome the perception that Linux users spend more time tinkering with and re-installing their operating system than actually doing anything. Note the word "perception." Because of this and other factors, I don't see Linux gaining any ground on the non-corporate desktop. Average users don't want command lines, dependencies, or mediocre open source clones of popular commercial software. And face it, Linux users don't want these uninformed "average" users using Linux anyway.


Businesses that are truly looking at Linux in their enterprise will choose RedHat or SLES if for nothing else, the enterprise agreements. Your complaints around the distros are just noise. Home users will ultimately decide the fate, if any, of those individual distros.

"Create one best distro" versus "Freedom."


Hum, I recognize that's [too many distros] true. If there were just 30 or less distros we could have actually put the efforts on creating a really comfortable "configuration files" method. Solution? Some web site should point at the worst distros (by poll, users vote the distro they have removed in favour of another one, and their new distro). The "bad distros" are then removed from distrowatch and such sites after a couple months, and the man-efforts is moved to something more useful


This is modern computing at its best: the freedom to be individual, to choose, not to be locked into any proprietary product. That there are so many distros is a feature, not a bug - different flavors of OS united by a common kernel.

"Fiddling while Windows rules" versus "The distros aren't that different."


While everyone is busy defining the difference between forks and distros, and defending the 60 times as many versions of Linux as there are of Windows Vista, another 10,000 Windows PCs were sold. A general end user tends to prefer ease of use over complex, and while choice is good, so much choice for a 'single' OS implies a great deal of complexity. I guarantee that the perspective presented by the Linux faithful here is exactly why Linux is still a third class citizen on the desktop world wide.


The point about the old Unix forking problem was that the different flavours really were different, so application vendors had to tailor their apps for each different Unix - even if they were running on the same or similar hardware platform (which they weren't). All the "different" distros of Linux run the same basic kernel (+/- version and a few patches), the same basic software (GNU). The only real differences are the installation and configuration, and from an app vendor's point of view that means at the most packaging the stuff in 2 or 3 different ways, or rolling your own installer.

"Non-techies don't understand multiple distros" versus "Linux is still better than Windows (nah nah nah nah nah)."


I would bet that 100% of the people posting here about how great it is to have all these different distros are techies. Don't get me wrong, I am a techie too. The problem is that non-tech types don't understand the differences between the different distros and they don't want to understand.

I am not saying that Microsoft is the best company in the world or Windows is a miracle OS, but they gave the industry focus. While Unix sat around fighting about which flavor of the OS was best, Windows provided a single solution.

If Linux wants to really put a dent in the Windows user base, it needs to just be Linux. Not Read Hat, Ubuntu, or whatever flavor decides to pop up next week. Seeing all these flavors come and go worries the average user. They don't understand the differences. They just think, "Hey, I finally got everything working in Windows. Why go through the hassle of switching to one Linux that might not operate like another."


We have hundreds of Linux distributions, but few are really important: Debian, Gentoo, Mandriva, Red Hat, Slackware, Ubuntu. We have competition and collaboration between those distros -- something we don't see in the Windows world. Now try to create a better Windows -- a lighter one, without DRM -- and you'll find out that you can't. You must eat what they give you.

Finally, here's one which was obviously meant to fit into the "counterpoint" (pro-Linux) bucket, but actually makes my point:

How is this different to what Microsoft Windows Vista is doing? All right, not 359 different versions, just 6.

About the Author(s)

Alexander Wolfe


Alexander Wolfe is a former editor for InformationWeek.

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